Best known as frontwoman for Belly and sometime member of Throwing Muses, this first solo outing by Tanya Donelly is everything you’d expect. Issued on 4AD records in 1997, ‘Lovesongs For Underdogs’ does not always sound like great departure from previous work with Belly; but while not greatly different, it manages to pull together the soft sounds of that band’s ‘Star’ and rockier parts of ‘King’ on one release. In that respect, it could be viewed as Donelly’s most “complete” record.
Released as a single, the opening number ‘Pretty Deep’ sets the tone for a lot of the record’s best moments. It’s a brilliant piece of chorus driven alt-rock (with poppy edges), its ringing guitars evoking lots of great 90s vibes, while the quieter moments highlight Donelly’s fantastically breathy vocal style. The chopping between loud and quiet is typical of the musical fashion of the time, and the multi-tracked guitars toward the end of the number have a great mix between dirty and clean, which in turn bring things to a solid climax. ‘The Bright Light’ continues in a similar vein, though perhaps has a stronger leaning towards pop, thanks to a drum line reminiscent of ‘Be My Baby’ and a sugary hook. Musically, it’s not a great leap from Belly’s latter day work, but certainly demonstrates a better understanding of what makes a great chorus.
The rather more ragged ‘Bum’ wouldn’t sound out of place on that second Belly album, with its overdriven guitars, while a studio-created choir of voices softens the sheet of noise. The bass has a lot of reverb, which combined with those guitars makes it one of ‘Lovesongs For Underdogs’ least tuneful offerings, but even this manages to hold some appeal. The guitar rock of ‘Lantern’ keeps this in good company, with a distorted riff underpinned by a slow and measured drum line. It’s funny, but even with semi-dirgy, grinding riffs a plenty, Donelly’s vocal still sounds fragile. It is perhaps such yin/yang approaches which have helped keep her work so enduring.
Both ‘Manna’ and ‘Acrobat’ focus largely on acoustic instruments. The latter is so simple it’s charming; there’s a hint of Throwing Muses at play, although Donelly’s soft voice is no match for Kristin Hersh’s banshee tones when it comes to a sparse arrangement. Though neither track presents a particular album highlight, their inclusion is very welcome, even if only to provide a contrast to the edgier numbers. For those who loved Belly’s ‘Star’ debut in the early 90s – and perhaps continue to do so – ‘Swoon’ closes the album with some rather familiar sounding dream pop; Donelly’s vulnerable sounding vocal is one of the album’s strongest, particularly during multi-tracked moments. This track may not bring anything new to Donelly’s musical repertoire, but it’s no less superb. A reverbed guitar solo and subtle bassline add extra depth to an already lovely closing statement.
The bulk of the material on ‘Lovesongs For Underdogs’ may be instantly familiar, often sounding like a natural continuation of Belly’s work – and never ever pushing Donelly outside of her comfort zone – but it’s real charm lies in its (mostly) effortless nature. Subsequent works may tread a more unfamiliar path on occasion – and have each their standouts – but in many ways, this album remains one of Donelly’s masterworks. If you’ve never got around to checking it out, there’s never a better time than now; it should be easy enough to pick up cheaply.
May 2008/October 2011